With two events in as many weeks, the Maldives has been making news both on the home front and in the global arena, for reasons that had been better left untouched.
Coming as they did after the successful SAARC Summit in the southern Addu City, these developments have the potential to become a major political and poll issue ahead of the presidential elections of 2013, if the current trends remain un-reversed.
The first incident flowed from the SAARC Summit itself. Forgetting that Pakistan too was an ‘Islamic State’, religious fundamentalists in Addu ransacked the SAARC memorial erected by Islamabad for depicting what they claimed were idolatrous, ‘un-Islamic’ symbols.
Customary as Pakistani memorials have mostly been, this one carried a bust of Mohammed Ali Jinnah and the nation’s flag. At the foot of the pedestal were reliefs of archaeological finds from the Indus Valley Civilisation sites in the country.
Fundamentalists, first in Addu and later in the political capital of Male, claimed that a relief motif represented Lord Buddha. They burnt the whole monument one night and took away the rest. It is as yet unclear if their protests were only over the presence of a perceived representation of Lord Buddha, who is worshipped in many of the SAARC member-nations, or it also related to Jinnah’s bust, as worshipping fellow-humans was also banned in Islam.
It was possibly not without reason that subsequent to the destruction and disappearance of the Jinnah statue, fundamentalists also targeted the Sri Lankan monument, a replica of the nation’s ‘Lion’ emblem. Investigators have to find out if this attack had anything to do with the Buddhist character of Sri Lanka, or was aimed at defusing the embarrassment flowing from the earlier attack on another ‘Islamic Republic’, where again fundamentalism and religious extremism were thriving — targeting not just the immediate neighbourhood but the rest of the world at large.
In contemporary context, Pakistan, along with neighbouring Afghanistan, are considered the global capitals of fundamentalism, from where Maldivian groups are perceived as deriving their strength. In Pakistan, unlike the other two nations, certain State agencies are believed to be aiding, abetting and funding fundamentalist efforts — and for carrying the message to the rest of South Asia and outside, too. Thus the contradiction in the fundamentalist attack on the Pakistan monument was palpable.
A full month after the SAARC Summit, local media reported that the Nepalese monument for SAARC too has been ‘stolen’. They quoted officials to say that the ‘theft’ had taken place when the police on guard duty were in between shifts. With three such desecrations, the authorities, if is said, were considering the wisdom of shifting all SAARC monuments to a central place in Addu and providing 24-hour police security.
Uni-faith character and flogging
The fundamentalists got another shot in the arm not long after when the visiting UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) chief Navneetham Pillay questioned Maldives uni-faith character that did not accept non-Muslims as citizens.
Addressing the People’s Majlis, or Parliament, only a week after Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh became the first overseas dignitary to do so, Pillay also questioned the Maldivian law on flogging of women, describing it as inhumane and violating of international commitments by the nation. She called for a national debate.
Since Pillay’s visit, local media has come up with a belated news report, citing a lower court ruling, that growing beard was close to being a religious obligation for males in the country.
According to the daily newspaper Haveeru, Magistrate Ibrahim Hussein in Maafushi, Kaaf Atoll, had overturned a Department of Penitentiary and Rehabilitation Services (DPRS) regulation that instructs its male employees to shave their beards. The DPRS has since challenged the ruling, as the magisterial verdict of March 2 has held that the regulation contradicts with Islamic principles, and cannot be made in a 100 percent Muslim country such as Maldives.
Though wholly unexpected, and possibly taken aback after the monument-burning, the government of President Mohammed Nasheed did not lose much time in expressing regret to the governments of Pakistan and Sri Lanka. It also arrested two persons for the desecration of the Pakistani monument.
The public postures of rival political parties however surprised many. President Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) was not as unequivocal as the rest. It was only to be expected under the circumstances, and also given his pro-liberal attitude and public image but individual MPs did declare that there was no question of permitting the practice of other religions in the country.
The opposition parties at one stage seemed to be competing with one another in expressing their solidarity with the Islamic forces. Fundamentalist Adhaalath Party (AP), which had left the government only recently over religious issues, wanted customs officials who had cleared the ‘banned monument’ into the country sued.
A section of the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), founded recently by those owing allegiance to former President Maumoon Gayoom, was shriller. Undiluted as yet, a party leader described the two arrested persons as ‘national heroes’ and wanted PPM to defend their case/cause.
Other parties, including the Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) with Thasmeen Ali, a former running-mate of Gayoom in the 2008 presidential race, could not be seen as being left far behind. Some of them, including a section in Gayoom’s PPM, sought to draw a distinction between fundamentalism and modern-day issues of sovereignty, in this regard, arguing that installation ofidolatorous monuments and statues challenged the sovereign right of the Maldivian State, including Parliament, to frame a Constitution and laws that reflected the people’s sentiments – and enforce them, too.
Pillay’s utterances, which she repeated at a news conference in Male, revived the argument even more, as political parties felt uncomfortable about commenting unfavourably an issue involving fellow nations like Pakistan and Sri Lanka. To them, the former was an Islamic nation as Maldives, and the latter, the closest neighbour and economic partner, too. Unacknowledged, they were also concerned about possible retaliation in Sri Lanka, where a large number of Maldivians reside, for work, studies or medical care, or use as a transit-point to travel to the rest of the world.
‘Missed opportunity’, says President
Historically, Maldives was home to Dravidian people from south India and also Sri Lankans. Before the arrival of Islam in the atolls-nation in the twelfth century when it was adopted by the ruler and his subjects soon enough, Buddhism was the dominant religion.
As critics of the Addu attacks point out, the National Museum in Male, built by the Chinese in recent years, houses Buddhist artefacts from that era. Maldivian history also has it that among the earlier non-Islamic, non-Buddhist rulers were women — thus possibly explaining relative liberalism to date, barring of course flogging for extra-marital relationship.
Even granting that the Addu incidents were a stand-alone affair, the Pillay controversy, identifiable with the UN system, has triggered calls for condemnation of the parent-organisation. Fundamentalist protestors shouted slogans outside the UN office in Male soon after the Addu incidents.
For starters, Maldivian parliamentarians in general and the mild-mannered Speaker Abdullah Shahid in particular would be uncomfortable until a future guest had completed his or her address to the People’s Majlis, if and when invited.
Answering criticism in this regard, Speaker Shahid said that he too was not privy to what Pillay intended saying. Fresh to such engagement with visiting dignitaries as much to the rest of the democratic scheme, Maldivian parliamentarians had possibly taken Prime Minister Singh’s address as the standard practice. Pillay may have now set them thinking.
Sometime after the dust from the Pillay fiasco had begun settling down, President Nasheed provoked fellow-Maldivians into a national discourse by declaring that “Our faith should not be so easily shaken” by utterances of the Navi Pillay kind.
“To build a nation, we should all have the courage, the patience and the willingness to exercise our minds to its deepest and broadest extent,” the local media quoted him as saying at an official function. By coming down heavily on Pillay’s suggestions, the President said elsewhere that Maldives might have “missed an opportunity” to demonstrate the nobility of the Islamic Sharia.
“We should have the courage to be able to listen to and digest what people tell us, what we hear and what we see,” said Nasheed, adding that Maldivians should not be “so easily swayed and conned. For that not to happen, we have to foster in our hearts a particular kind of national spirit and passion. This national spirit is not going to come into being by not listening, not talking and hiding things, [but] by clearly and transparently saying what we think in our hearts, discussing its merits among us and making decisions based on [those debates].”
Given his democratic credentials and the tendency to throw up issues for national discourse through his weekly radio address, President Nasheed’s observations did not raise hell as his detractors would have hoped for. Nor did it stir the nation into a discourse as he may have hoped for.
However, attackers did take on others, and physically so. A small group of pro-tolerance protestors under the banner of ‘Silent Solidarity’ were stoned by unidentified men when they gathered for a rally, advocating openness to all faiths in the aftermath of Pillay’s advocacy.
Even as the controversy over the Pillay statements was unfolding, Foreign Affairs Minister Mohammed Naseem lost no time in trying to smoothen out the ruffled Opposition feathers. “What’s there to discuss about flogging?” Minister Naseem was reported as saying, “There is nothing to debate about in a matter clearly stated in the religion of Islam. No one can argue with God.”
The Minister clarified that Maldives had submitted certain reservations to the international conventions that Pillay had referred to, including the provisions on gender equality and freedom of religion. “On these points the country could not be held legally accountable by an international body,” he said further.
Islamic Minister, Dr Abdul Majeed Abdul Bari, a renowned religious scholar, lost no time in calling for the removal of idolatrous SAARC monuments. Later after the Pillay controversy, he said that Sharia could not be made a subject of debate.
A representative of the fundamentalist Adhaalath Party who chose to return to the government after the party had pulled out, Dr Bari appealed to the people not to vandalise symbols of other religions. He referred to what he claimed was a retaliatory attack on a local mosque in Addu City and quoted the Quran 6:108, which reads “And do not insult those they invoke other than Allah, lest they insult Allah in enmity without knowledge. Thus We have made pleasing to every community their deeds. Then to their Lord is their return and He will inform them about what they used to do.”
Dr Bari’s junior colleague and State Minister for Islamic Affairs, Sheikh Rasheed Hussein Ahmed, had a different take on the former’s suggestion for the host nations to take back the monuments. A former president of the Adhaalath Party and native of Addu Atoll who has chosen to stay back in the government (though the party has no parliamentary representation under the Executive Presidency), Dr Rasheed seemed to concur with the official position that it was improper for Maldives to suggest such a course. At the outset thus he indicated the need for securing all SAARC monuments in a common place at Addu. The media has reported that the government was looking at the option in the aftermath of the attack on the Nepalese monument.
Nation-wide protest on cards
Unimpressed by the government’s explanations, if any, the opposition parties have independently or otherwise, extended their support to over 125 non-government organisations (NGOs) that have called for a nation-wide protest on religious issues on December 23.
Some in the opposition, including one-time Minister and presidential aspirant, Jumhooree Party founder Gasim Ibrahim, see in the Addu affair and the Pillay statements a governmental conspiracy aimed at twin-goals –of, allowing other religions into the country and at the same time dilute the Sharia as is being practised in Maldives.
As observers point out, for the past over two years, the government of President Nasheed has been giving a handle to fundamentalist elements to make a hue and cry, every now and again.
Starting with the government’s decision to accept a Guantanamo Bay detainee at the instance of the US, inviting Israeli doctors, farm experts and now their airline, considering permission for liquor sale and consumption in inhabited islands, starting with the national capital of Male’, seeking to make the study of Islam and the national language, Dhivehi, optional for A-Level students, they say, the Nasheed leadership has been seeking to dilute Islamic traditions and practices, one after the other. On the economic front, they have added the IMF-induced reforms and the ‘managed float’ of the dollar to the ‘conspiracy’.
On the one hand, the emergence of one religion-related controversy after another, almost at periodic intervals, has the potential to keep fundamentalism alive, and possibly expanding to take extremist colours, if only over time. On the other, the ever-expanding political support-base that such issues have been attracting confers on the more identifiable practitioners, greater and otherwise unintended legitimacy that is otherwise lacking. Greater legitimacy could strengthen their political cause and electoral presence, as the Adhaalath Party has proved in the local council polls of March 2011. The party materialised unexpected gains in the council polls, limited still as they were. Continued irrelevance on the electoral front, as happened in the presidential polls of 2008, could strengthen the resolve and determination to adopt a more extremist course.
The formation of the PPM and its political identification with the AdhaalathParty for now on the religious front has the potential to keep fundamentalist issues on the fore of the nation’s political and electoral agenda, during the run-up to the presidential polls of 2013. Shriller these sections become, in an attempt to take the elections out of better debatable issues like democracy and economy, greater will be the claims to mass-representation for their otherwise limited support-base. When, where and how the former would drown the latter, if it came to that, is hard to predict at the moment, given in particular the vastness of the nation in terms of the logistical nightmare that an election campaign faces and the prohibitive expenses that it entails. Thus Islam also becomes the first and natural choice to unite the divided Opposition in electoral terms.
President Nasheed’s camp is hopeful of his winning re-election in the first round in 2013. Yet, some voices in his MDP are already talking in public about his scoring 40-per cent and above, much less than the 50-per cent victory-mark and far lower than the 60 per cent his campaign-managers say he was sure to win. With Gayoom and his family ties to the PPM needing no reiteration, some observers think, talking about the ‘misrule’ from the past could help the Nasheed candidacy, particularly if the party were to stick to its new-found Adhaalath ally, for the second round.
From the opposition camp, too, there are hopes that focussing on religion-based issues, rather than those of democracy, economy and family rule, would take their campaign away from further internal strife within parties like DRP and PPM – and among the larger numbers, too.
Yet the official DRP opposition sounds relatively uncomfortable flagging religious issues compared to larger political and economic issues. The DRP’s weakened DQP (Dhivehi Quamee Party) has been focusing on such issues, and is now credited with obtaining a civil court order restraining the Indian infrastructure major GMR Group from collecting a higher $25 entry-fee at the Ibrahim Nasir International Airport (INIA) at Male, for which it has a 25-year modernisation and maintenance contract.
Incidentally, this means that GMR’s projected revenues will fall short by $25 million a year, and the group, it is reported, intends appealing the lower court order. In a way, the court order may have taken the arguments against the GMR contract further away from the hands of fundamentalist groups.
When the contract issues first came up before parliament and public arena in 2009, when it was signed, sections within the undivided DRP of the time, and a few others in the opposition had raised legal, constitutional and procedural issues. They had argued that involving any foreign company in airport modernisation would challenge Maldivian sovereignty. The debate lingers.
For all this however, mainstreaming of fundamentalist ideas and politics may have positive fallout, however limited, under a guided process. Mainstreaming of extreme viewpoints in other democracies has often led to moderation, if only over time. Over the short and the medium terms, sections of the polity with strong and extreme viewpoints have often tended to push their agenda, convictions and beliefs, whether in government or outside. As an Islamic democracy, Maldives is uniquely placed – and could thus become a test case, too.
The question is if the nation can allow itself to be one, now or ever. In a country, where religious moderation has been the hallmark of the society for centuries, the reverse should also be true. Allowing for evolutionary processes to take shape would be a better option rather than imposing externally-induced debates and changes on an otherwise moderate and harmonious society, it is said.
Over the past years, there have been reports of Maldivian youth attending Pakistani madrasas where they were reportedly being taught not just religion and theology but also jihadimilitancy. A 2009 report said that close to a dozen Maldivian youth were among the jihadi militants captured by the US-led forces along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, and that they had confessed to being trained in Pakistani madrasas.
The attack thus on the Pakistani monument in Addu City thus raises questions about the authorship of fundamentalism in Maldives, but at the same time also highlights the possible consequences of either course, for Maldives in particular and neighbouring nations, otherwise.
Either way, it is felt that any Islam-centric campaign for elections-2013 would keep the fundamentalists going. They would be targetting larger stakes and goals. Considering that the Maldivian state structure and institutional mechanisms, starting with the national police force, are ill-equipped to address such issues and concerns with any amount of clarity, certainty and work-plan, in terms of intelligence-gathering and dissuasive power at the grassroots-level, President Nasheed, it is said, would be handing himself a tougher task than already in his second term, if his leadership does not drag the nation away from Islam as an election issue.
Deferring such a predicament, either for the self or for successors might still be in his hand, instead.
The writer is a Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation
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